After the great wave of independence, one-party socialist regimes promised a utopia which never arrived in much of the continent, while capitalist- friendly dictators ruled and plundered the rest. The Cold War was fought by proxy between the allies of Washington and Moscow - sometimes just with money, sometimes with guns. The continent was marked by famine, corruption, and chaos. In the past three years, there has been bloodshed on an unimaginable scale, where the world looked on in apparent helplessness. Nigeria, Sudan, Angola, Rwanda, Burundi, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Mozambique ... all have been scarred by civil war, and the misery of millions that it causes.
Not, then, a time for much optimism about the continent. And yet, President Nelson Mandela chose this week to speak of an African renaissance. He was, he said, "convinced that our region and our continent have set out along the new road of lasting peace, democracy, social and economic development".
Dream on, many might say - with some considerable justice. But it would be dangerous to dismiss this as the mere wishful thinking of an old man. Mr Mandela, perhaps more than anybody else, has the moral right to be at odds with conventional wisdom about his continent. Only a few years ago, after all, Tony Blair's predecessor-but-one in Downing Street argued that anybody who believed that the ANC would soon become the government of South Africa was "living in cloud-cuckoo-land".
One apparent boost for Mr Mandela's optimism was the collapse of the Mobutu regime in Zaire. Yet this was far from a Wenceslas Square-style velvet revolution; nor was it the almost equally velvet revolution that brought about the final downfall of the apartheid regime, and brought Mr Mandela to power. Mr Kabila's victory was a victory with guns - and, in that sense, a bad setter of precedents. Mr Kabila himself has yet to prove his democratic credentials. The chances of his turning out to be a gentle and tolerant president a la Mandela do not look good, at least on past form.
So Mr Mandela's optimism must be hedged round, again and again. As he himself acknowledged: "It is given that complex problems spanning decades will not lend themselves to easy solutions." But he also insisted: "The time has come for Africa to take full responsibility for her woes, use the immense collective wisdom it possesses to make a reality of the ideal of the African renaissance whose time has come."
In helping to bring an almost-peaceful end to the conflict in Zaire, nudging the dictator Mobutu towards the exit door, Mr Mandela has played the statesmanlike role to which we have become accustomed. He was the host for final talks between Mr Kabila and the dictator himself. Despite South Africa's hope that it would be perceived as the peacemaker of the continent, South Africa's real contribution to peace in Zaire has been only modest.
Elsewhere, where South Africa has sought to intervene - for example, in criticising the Nigerian government and pressing for Commonwealth sanctions, after the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa in 1995 - it has quickly retreated when other countries have become worried at the perceived lack of solidarity. With leaders like Daniel arap Moi still in power in Kenya, where the opposition is constantly harassed, there is little obvious reason to feel that the virus of democracy is irresistible. Tribal conflicts are still ever-present. There is grinding poverty across the continent.
Mr Mandela lays the long-term blame for Africa's problems fair and square on the Western colonial powers, "the forces historically responsible for her woes". But he also insists that Africa is now in a position to refuse to be "a passive onlooker in a changing world". The circle, in other words, may be less vicious than it once was.
Nor is that necessarily a Panglossian view. The virulence of some of the conflicts of the past few years is worse than depressing. But that may partly reflect the fact that tumultuous changes have happened, many of which are indubitably for the better. Western countries have come to accept that they helped to create many of the problems. Equally, the arguments have moved well beyond the point where the white colonial powers can still be blamed for every dot and comma of what goes wrong.
The collapse of the apartheid regime was the most obviously heartwarming event in the region in recent years. The exit of Mobutu, destination unknown, is another reason to rejoice. One of the least predictable knock- on effects of the revolutions in Eastern Europe in 1989 was the collapse of a number of one-party regimes in Africa, after popular protests. Despite the messiness, that legacy remains important. For these are not just political matters. Mobutu's presence hampered Zaire's economic, as much as its political, potential.
There was, perhaps, an irony that Mr Mandela's speech was delivered to the parliament in Zimbabwe, whose own leader, Robert Mugabe, is not best known for embodying democratic principles in all his activities. But Mr Mandela knows that economics and politics go hand in hand. Speaking in a voice that could easily be New Labour, he spoke of reducing budget deficits and building a competitive economy in the same breath as speaking of political change. In politics, bringing people to believe that something can be achieved is one of the first stages in finding a path over apparently insurmountable barriers. If there is even the smallest possibility that Mr Mandela may prod his fellow leaders around Africa into raising their aspirations, and cleaning up their acts, he should be heard, and applauded.Reuse content